Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Sciatica Nerve Pain

Understanding the Causes and Symptoms of Sciatica Nerve Pain

Sciatica nerve pain affects millions of people in the United States. The shooting pains and symptoms like muscle weakness can impact quality of life and make it difficult to do the normal activities that many of us take for granted. Although it may seem like something you just have to live with, the truth is that there are effective treatments for sciatic nerve pain and it is a condition that is possible to manage. 

A key first step is to educate yourself as a patient. By understanding exactly what sciatica nerve pain is, what the causes are, and how to recognize the symptoms, you can take a more active role in your care. We’re sharing this guide to help anyone dealing with sciatica take control of their pain and get back to spending time with the people and activities they love. 


Sciatica and the Sciatic Nerve Explained

Sciatica is a term for a set of painful symptoms caused by compression of the sciatic nerve. The sciatic nerve is the longest and widest nerve in the body, consisting of multiple nerve roots that originate in the lumbar (lower) spine before branching off into the lower body. This nerve travels through the buttocks, backs of the legs and down to the feet on both sides of the body. 

Because it is so long, there are multiple points along the nerve where compression and irritation can occur, especially in the lower spine and the buttocks. Similarly, sciatica nerve pain can be experienced all along the nerve pathway. One of the most common paths is the lower back to the buttocks and to the back of one of the legs. 

Sciatica nerve pain usually occurs on one side or the other, although bilateral nerve pain can occur in some cases.  


Common Causes of Sciatica Nerve Pain 

There are a wide range of conditions that can compress the sciatic nerve and cause sciatica nerve pain, including:

  • Herniated discs in the spine
  • Bulging discs in the spine
  • Spinal bone spurs from bone-on-bone friction caused by conditions such as facet disease or degenerative disc disease
  • Muscle strains in the buttocks, particularly the piriformis muscle 
  • Pregnancy-related sciatica caused by excess pressure from a growing baby in the womb
  • Nerve damage related to diabetes or other conditions

Risk factors that can increase the chances of sciatica developing include age, lack of exercise, poor nutrition, being overweight and obese, poor posture, smoking, and excessive alcohol consumption. Although there is no way to completely prevent sciatica, practicing a spine healthy lifestyle can significantly decrease the chances of sciatica nerve pain and potentially lessen the severity if it does occur. 


Sciatica Symptoms

The type and severity of sciatica nerve pain symptoms can vary depending on the location and extent of sciatic nerve compression. Some of the most commonly reported symptoms include: 

  • Shooting or burning pain starting in the lower back 
  • Pain in the buttocks 
  • Pain in the back of the leg
  • Tingling and numbness in the extremities
  • Muscle weakness
  • Muscle spasms
  • Limping
  • In severe cases, a symptom known as foot drop can develop which can severely hinder walking

Because sciatica-like symptoms can be caused by other conditions and injuries, it is critical to receive an accurate diagnosis for the source of your pain. Doctors will review symptoms and medical history, perform a physical examination, and order diagnostic imagery such as an MRI. Additional testing such as nerve blocks may be required to pinpoint the exact point of compression or irritation. 


Effectively Managing Sciatica Nerve Pain

Treatment for sciatica nerve pain will generally begin with conservative therapies. For many people, basic treatments such as rest, hot and/or cold compression, over-the-counter medication and gentle stretching can be very effective. 

In more severe cases, interventional pain management, including pain management injections, may be necessary to relieve sciatic nerve pain. Additionally, treatments such as physical therapy and therapeutic massage can help improve function, strengthen supporting muscles, relax soft tissue and improve circulation to the area. 

Sciatica pain that does not respond to a full course of nonsurgical pain management therapy may benefit from minimally invasive spine procedures. By using a small incision and muscle-sparing techniques, highly skilled surgeons can access the spine and remove material, such as part of a herniated disc or bone spur that is causing sciatic nerve compression. Thanks to advanced technology and surgical methods, these procedures can be completed on an outpatient basis with less risk of complication compared to traditional open spine procedures. 


Find the Relief You Deserve with PPOA

No matter the stage of your sciatica treatment journey, the caring experts at Physician Partners of America can help. For years, we have been helping people dealing with sciatica nerve pain and related conditions find personalized care that addresses the sources of sciatic nerve compression. Whether you need interventional pain management or minimally invasive surgery, we can assist you in making the right care decisions for you and your family. 

Contact our dedicated team today to learn more.